Alexa v. Google Assistant makes consumers the big winners

Google was all over The Strip. Photo by Kevin Tofel.

After walking an average of 10 miles a day at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show, I realized I couldn’t walk 25 feet without seeing the same thing over and over. No, not devices; there was wide range of those. I’m talking about products that had Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant integrations.

They. Were. Everywhere. Not just on the show floor either: Google spent a good sum to get its Assistant product mentioned on most hotel signage, the Las Vegas Monorail and billboards everywhere I turned.

That indicates two things to me. First, with such an array of IoT product choices that now have smart voice support, we’re essentially at a tipping point in the smart home market when it comes to mainstream adoption. Second, after years of waiting for de facto, standard smart home platforms that can simplify purchase decisions, we have one. It’s called voice, or what I dubbed the “invisible interface” a few years ago. At a high level voice is becoming both a UI and an IoT platform of sorts.

There are several reasons not everyone who wants a smart home has one yet. Costs have been high and it’s not clear to every homeowner why they even need a smart home, whether it’s one with just a single connected device or dozens. Costs are coming down though and with each new iteration of products, people are starting to see the benefits of having connected door locks, sensors, blinds, thermostats and more.

But the other reason — a main one, I’d argue — is that the smart home market has been confusing for many mainstream people. Ask a non-technical neighbor what Zigbee, Z-Wave, mesh networking or ARTIK is and they’ll probably give a you blank stare. For “normals” to buy into the smart home, all of the back-end technologies and radio protocols need to be abstracted away, never to be seen or talked about again. That’s where voice comes in.

Why? Because if you asked that same neighbor what an Amazon Alexa or Google Home is, they’d very likely know. We don’t know how many Alexa-enabled products Amazon sold in the past two years but consumers did purchase “tens of millions of Alexa-enabled devices” this past holiday season. Likewise, Google sold an estimated six million Google Home Minis in the final three months of 2017. People are buying these because they provide instant benefits and are intuitively simple to use simply by asking questions. And they are buying them: NPR says that 16 percent of U.S. households now have a smart speaker, which is a 128 percent increase from NPR’s data a year ago.

Many of the newest products I saw don’t require hubs either because they’re working natively with a voice assistant. Going forward, you’ll see Samsung’s Bixby voice agent in televisions and refrigerators. Televisions from LG, Sony and others can be voice controlled directly through Alexa or Google Assistant without a hub. In fact, Google announced this week that its Assistant / Home platform works with more than 1,500 devices.

So it’s becoming less important to know which smart home products work with Wink, SmartThings and other branded-hubs because voice controls are essentially becoming the newest and primary interface for smart home products. Sure, for many things you’ll still need a hub. If you want Bixby on to show who’s at your front door from the fridge or TV, your video doorbell will have to work with SmartThings. The same goes for a notification that you left the garage door open or that your home security system indicates a family member just arrived home. That isn’t going away.

But that’s OK. By integrating now-standard voice platforms into a larger array of smart home products, consumers will have an easier time understanding the value and in installing or using connected gear. No longer do we have to worry about news like Honeywell’s announced integration with Whirlpool that lets your Honeywell thermostat tell your appliances when you are out of the home so the dishwasher can run. We can just hook each to the Amazon Echo and tell it to turn on the dishwasher as we leave. Automations may require a hub or a third-party service such as IFTTT, Yonomi or Stringify but getting smart devices working by voice in the home is an important and simple first step.

I definitely don’t want the “Works with Wink / SmartThings / Nest” designations on smart home products to disappear. However, the “Works with Amazon Alexa / Google Assistant” markings have become far more important for mainstream consumers. Let the two (or three, if you include Bixby) voice assistants continue to battle it out, I say. In the end, we all win.

Stacey on IoT | Internet of Things news and analysis

Alexa, play me an ad that I don’t want to hear (said no one ever)

Here’s a good news, (potentially) bad news story.

First the good news: Even though it typically doesn’t provide sales numbers for its product lines, Amazon touted record purchases of Alexa-enabled products this holiday season.

Given how mainstream and relatively inexpensive Echo and Fire TV devices are, that’s not a surprise. I’d expect record sales over last year’s numbers for those reasons. However, a recent Amazon press release did give us some inkling of the sales figures, which are impressive:

[T]ens of millions of Alexa-enabled devices sold worldwide. Echo Dot and Fire TV Stick with Alexa Voice Remote were not only the top-selling Amazon devices this holiday season, but they were also the best-selling products from any manufacturer in any category across all of Amazon.

The company also noted that usage of Alexa on Fire TV is up 889% in the U.S. since last year. Clearly we’re getting close to the point where it might be odd not to see or talk to an Echo or Fire TV in most households. Again, great news for Amazon.

Now for the potential bad news: With a fast growing user base across all types of households, Amazon is looking forward to further monetization of its Echo products. And that may come in the form of Alexa voicing more spoken ads or product promotions to you and your family members. A report from CNBC shares limited details of discussions between Amazon and top-tier consumer brands such as Procter & Gamble as well as Clorox.

I say this is possible bad news from a consumer standpoint, mainly because we seem to go in cycles with digital advertising: Every time a new device, medium or service hits the big time, annoying ads typically follow. I can’t get through a few Instagram photos, for example, without seeing some sponsored product. That wasn’t an issue when Instagram was building an audience, but once it did, the ad revenue started flowing. I don’t want to see the same thing happen with Alexa-enabled devices for a few reasons.

While they’re often an necessary evil, ads can be annoying. I’m now trained to generally ignore them when surfing the web at this point. (Yes, I know I could use an ad-blocker.) But that training essentially took years of using the web before ads essentially became so invisible to me that I just focus in on actual web content.

How will that work with voice, though? Not well, unless Amazon provides noise cancelling headphones with every Echo or Fire TV sold, which of course won’t happen. So Amazon will be walking a very fine line if it decides to ramp up spoken ads on Alexa-enabled devices. Too much “in your face” advertising and Amazon runs the risk of upsetting its customer base. Will those folks abandon the U.S.S. Alexa and get on board with Google, Microsoft or Apple? Probably not but Amazon prides itself on keeping customers happy, so this is risky business at best.

Amazon could integrate contextually relevant voice ads with spoken queries, but I’m not a fan of that. If I say I want to buy a Brand A toothbrush, I don’t want Alexa to tell me about Brand B.

It’s possible that companies could sponsor certain Alexa Skills, which would be decent approach in my opinion. After all, users choose to install a Skill or not, just like they choose to install mobile apps with or without ads. That puts some of the power in the hands of end users because they’ll know for sure if they can expect advertising or not from their personal assistant.

I’m also wondering if Amazon decides to replicate its advertising options on Kindle readers and tablets: You could pay less for an Alexa-enabled device in return for some limited amount of (hopefully not too intrusive) advertising. If you want to squelch the ads, you simply pay the small “upgrade” fee to be rid of them. Since some Echo devices are so inexpensive, I couldn’t see this working on an Echo Dot or Fire TV Stick. But a full sized Amazon Echo Plus or Echo Show? The numbers could work.

We’ll have to see how this all plays out of course. I suspect Amazon is very carefully weighing its options on this front. In the meantime, I’m going to converse a little more than usual with Alexa now so I can enjoy an ad-free experience.

Stacey on IoT | Internet of Things news and analysis

Amazon onboards new recruit, Alexa for Business

Amazon onboards Alexa for Business

Amazon has launched a new set of tools to allow businesses to use its Alexa-driven smart speakers in offices and conference rooms.

Alexa could be coming to a conference room near you soon. The artificial intelligence (AI) technology that underpins Amazon’s Dot and Echo smart speakers got bumped up the corporate agenda yesterday, with the announcement of Alexa for Business.

Alexa for Business is a set of tools for using the voice-activated virtual assistant in the workplace, explained Amazon’s chief technology officer Werner Vogels, speaking at the Amazon Web Services Reinvent conference in Las Vegas.

Voice, he said, is “a natural way of interacting with your systems. You ask your environment to give you the right answer.”

There are, for example, new integrations for popular office software, including communications tools from Microsoft Exchange and RingCentral; customer relationship management software from Salesforce; and SAP’s Concur and SuccessFactors applications, for travel and expenses and talent management, respectively. Meanwhile, tools are provided to enable IT administrators to set up and manage smart speakers on corporate networks.

Read more: BMW to add Amazon Alexa to new cars from 2018

Virtual office assistants

Work-based virtual assistants could be useful in all sorts of ways, as AWS explained in a blog post.

Devices shared by teams, for example, could be used to start meetings in conference rooms, turning on video conferencing equipment and dialing into conference calls. Or they might enable employees to use voice to request directions around an office building, find an open conference room, report a problem with building equipment or order new supplies.

Devices dedicated to individual employees, meanwhile, could help busy executives make phone calls, send messages, check calendars, schedule meetings or find information in applications such as Salesforce or SAP Concur.

In fact, many businesses are already using Alexa in the workplace, sometimes without the IT department’s knowledge. A recent survey by security tools company Armis of its clients showed that over four-fifths (82 percent) have at least one Amazon Echo in their corporate environment, “sometimes in very sensitive environments.” Armis warned that these devices could be vulnerable to the Blueborne malware.

Read more: Ocado launches Alexa app for voice-activated online shopping

The post Amazon onboards new recruit, Alexa for Business appeared first on Internet of Business.

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Create the smart home gadget of the future with Alexa and Arduino

We’re excited to announce a new challenge with Amazon Alexa and Hackster.io, which invites the Arduino community to design the smart home gadgets of the future.

Makers have already come up with exciting ways to integrate Alexa and Arduino into their projects, from talking teddy bears and singing animatronic fish, to voice-controlled blinds and holiday decorations, to robotic coffee machines and drink mixers. And now, we want to see what next-generation devices you can come up with. Personalized lighting? Room temperature automation? Security and doorbell systems? Pet toys and feeders?

Contest winners will be awarded with prizes that can help take their ideas from prototype to product through Dragon Innovation’s certification process, Kickstarter coaching sessions, cash, and more.

The Best Overall Alexa Smart Home Skill & Gadget winner will receive a prize package valued at $ 29,000:

  • $ 14,000 cash
  • Kickstarter Package: Promotional video and marketing fund
  • Dragon Innovation Certification
  • A 60-minute Kickstarter coaching session

Want to learn more about the Alexa and Arduino Smart Home Challenge? You can find a full list of prizes and rules here.

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Sonos One review: Sweet sound mixed with Alexa voice and smart home controls

It was over a year ago that Sonos announced its strategic partnership with Amazon, saying it would bring Alexa voice integration to Sonos speakers. Fast forward 14 months and that integration is finally here for existing Sonos device owners who also own an Amazon Echo product. The Echo acts as the microphone for voice controls. However, there’s also a new device, the $ 199.99 Sonos One, which works with Alexa without needing an Echo or a Dot.

I’ve spent a week with a loaner Sonos One and overall, I’m very impressed. here are some limitations worth noting if you’re a current Echo device user. And just to level set my observations, I’ve never owned a Sonos product before, while I have purchased one Amazon Echo, an Echo Tap and two Echo Dots.

For those not familiar with Sonos, the company has pioneered Wi-Fi speakers and multi-room audio. Sonos opts for Wi-Fi over Bluetooth because the former can transmit more information, so audio files aren’t as compressed and sound better. Wi-Fi also allows the same audio to be sent to multiple devices, although you can do that with Bluetooth 5.0 to a lesser extent. The Sonos product line boasts compatibility with more than 80 unique streaming services, ranging from Apple Music to Tidal and just about everything in between including Spotify, Pandora, Amazon Music, Google Play Music, SiriusXM, TuneIn, Napster and more. Essentially, if you can stream it, chances are good that Sonos speakers can play it.

Simple setup in just a few minutes

For this review, I used a beta version of the Sonos app, which could be tweaked or different from the app when Sonos starts shipping the One next week. Setup was super simple: I plugged the speaker into an electrical outlet and then pressed a button on the back of the One to start the pairing process.

I signed in to the Sonos app on my iPhone, walked through a few steps to get the One on my Wi-Fi network and told the app which room my speaker would be in; useful if you plan to put speakers in different rooms.

Once the speaker was connected, the app walked me through an optional Trueplay Tuning activity. This fired off test tones for about 3 minutes while I walked around the kitchen waving my phone up and down. Sonos uses the microphone in your handset to gather spatial data and then custom tunes the One for optimal sound in that room, which is clever. You can skip the TruePlay Tuning if you want (sorry Android folks, it’s an iOS-only feature), and there’s also EQ Settings in the app if you prefer to customize sound on your own.

Of course, you need music before using the speaker, so the next part of the process is where I connected the Sonos app to a few music services. In my case, I used Amazon Music and Apple Music although I was able to use other music services without directly connecting them to my Sonos account – I’ll explain that in a bit.

Lastly, I set up Alexa on the One, which connects your Amazon account to the app. I also had to download the Sonos skill for Alexa, which is the secret software sauce to support voice services. Overall, expect to spend 10 minutes at most to set up a One.

Excellent sound plus voice controls

The new Sonos One looks similar to the existing Sonos Play:1 speaker, but don’t judge this book by its cover. The company tells me only two minor parts of the speaker base are re-used in the updated model: Everything else has been redesigned inside and out.

With just a quick look at the two, I’d be hard pressed to tell the difference. The most obvious difference, however, is the top of the speakers. Instead of hard buttons, the new Sonos One has touch sensitive controls for play/pause, volume up/down and a mute button for the microphone – remember, Sonos One has Alexa built in, so there are far-field array of six microphones listening like an Amazon Echo.

Inside is a pair of Class D amplifiers, one tweeter for high frequencies and one mid-range woofer of mid- to low-frequency sounds. I can’t compare the output to an older Sonos device, and to be honest, sound quality can be fairly subjective.

To my ears, however, the audio output is excellent: Crisp and clear highs and midrange tones along with strong, but not overwhelming, thump-y bass you can feel. The rich sound is more powerful than I expected in a speaker that’s 6.36 x 4.69 x 4.69 inches in cubic volume. In fact, I used a decibel level app on my phone to compare the output of the same song on both my original Amazon Echo and the Sonos One with both devices at 50 percent volume. The Sonos sound levels were typically 10 to 13 decibels louder at the same test distances and with no audible distortion that I could hear.

While you can control and choose all of your music with the Sonos app — the app acts like a centralized repository for all of your music services — the big improvement in this iteration is the addition of voice controls using Alexa.

The experience was no different than doing the same thing on my Echo devices, which is to say, it’s pretty good. I rarely experienced any hiccups when voice controlling the One for music, even with the music volume up fairly high. I’d say the microphone array is at least as good as the one in my Amazon Echo, if not better. Those touch screen controls work well too for changing volume or tracks but I rarely used them because the voice controls are so good.

I should note that even though I didn’t link my SiriusXM account with the Sonos One, I could still use voice commands to fire it up. Saying, “Alexa, play channel 18 on Sirius XM” started up my beloved Beatles Channel on the speaker, likely because that music service is tied to my account in the Alexa app.

Exactly what you’d expect as a smarthome assistant

Music is clearly in the roots of the Sonos One, but adding microphones, Alexa Voice Services and the Sonos skill to the speaker turns it into a solid smarthome assistant. There’s no need to set up any smarthome integrations on the Play One if you’ve already done so previously with an Echo device. Everything just works as it does on Amazon’s own devices for lighting controls, smart locks, thermostats and more.

There’s not much to say here because Sonos is — smartly, in my opinion — tapping into Amazon’s existing smarthome control services. Put another way: If you can control a smart device by voice with an Amazon Echo, you can do it with a Sonos One.

It’s not an Echo device but that may be OK for some

While I came away impressed by everything the Sonos One with Alexa can do, there are things it can’t do. Remember, this is not an Amazon Echo device, so some features found in an Echo aren’t here.

For example, you can’t use the Alexa Drop In feature on a One, so you won’t be having any intercom conversations around your house. Alexa can do voice calls too as of a few months ago but only if she’s inside an Amazon Echo device: You can’t make voice calls from a Sonos One.

And when it comes to grouping speakers for multi-room playback, there’s a bit of a hitch unless you’re all in on Echo or Sonos devices. I can group my Echo speakers in the Alexa app and play music on some or all of them at the same time, but I can’t add a Sonos speaker to a group in the Alexa app. Likewise, I don’t see a way to add Echo devices to a Sonos room or group. If you have other Sonos speakers, or Amazon Echo devices for that matter, you can tell them which Sonos speaker to play on, however. I told the Echo in my living room to play music in the kitchen on the Sonos and it worked just fine.

Alexa’s Flash Briefing isn’t yet available on the One but Sonos says it’s coming soon. Sonos will also be adding additional features over time to Alexa inside the One. At launch, Alexa voice controls for music are limited to Amazon Music, iHeartRadio, Pandora, SiriusXM and TuneIn. Spotify is expected soon soon after the launch, however. And until then, you can easily control music in the app, like I had to for my Apple Music tunes.

Are any of these deal breakers? Not for me, but I’m sure some folks might raise an eyebrow over these limitations when considering what smart speakers to purchase: Something we recently discussed on video to help understand all of the different choices currently available or coming soon.

After such a positive experience with the Sonos One review unit, I’m leaning towards buying one or two of my own while retiring a pair of Echo units. I can live without the Alexa Drop In and voice calling features while still using Alexa to control my smart home with a Sonos One. I’d also get what I think is better sound quality and what I know is device that supports more music services. Looking ahead, the Sonos One will be getting Google Assistant integration in 2018, making it more agnostic when it comes to voice assistants.

Keep in mind that Amazon has new Echo speakers available later this month, Google recently announced its Home Max, and Apple’s HomePod is also on the way before year end. We’ll be sure to compare each of these to each other and the Sonos One as these products launch.

Stacey on IoT | Internet of Things news and analysis